The Best Flan in America

A Latina who doesn't get all giddy about flan? Doesn't exist as far as we know! After all, who could resist such a divine concoction of caramel, vanilla and leche condensada? A few months ago we sent our fearless tasting team on a coast-to-coast search of panaderías, bodegas and fancy restaurants alike. The result? A delectable tour of our favorite flans, from Miami to Los Angeles. One thing: We couldn't possibly have tasted every flancito out there (whose caderas could handle that?), so we're certain we've overlooked some great ones. Let us know what we've missed . In the meantime, buen provecho!

Miami

Versailles Restaurant
On the outskirts of Miami's Little Havana neighborhood lies this traditional Cuban cuisine staple, where political discussion is just as likely to come with your meal as a side of yuca frita. At any point of the day, Versailles is buzzing with chatty customers, but a spoonful of the Dulce de leche flan (for a friendly $3) can silence even the most boisterous of them. Keep a glass of water nearby; it's so thick it feels like peanut butter in your mouth. (3555 SW 8th St., 305/445-7614)

 

Havana Harry's
If traditional flan with a side of vanilla ice cream and homemade caramel sauce sounds like too much—don't worry. The smooth helado actually helps to mellow the sweetness of their Lolita flan and caramel. At $6, está rico! (4612 S. Le Jeune Road, Coral Gables, 305/661-2622)

 

—Laura Figueroa

Tampa

West Tampa Sandwich Shop
This Flan de queso is as thick and as dense as cheesecake, but not too sweet or rich. The $2 flancito is one of five flans on the menu. Each is made with care, using recipes that co-owner Nidia Barrionuevo cooked up long before she came from Cuba in 1980. (3904 N. Armenia Ave., West Tampa, 813/873-7104)

 

La Teresita Restaurant
Amid the commotion at the bustling lunch counter in Tampa's most popular Cuban restaurant, this Flan de vainilla provides a little slice of serenity. It's so creamy your spoon will slide right through the lightly browned top into the yellow custard. These flans are produced in mass quantity, so even though they're a bargain at $2 it's not likely they'll run out—but if they do, try the Flan de queso. (3248 W. Columbus Dr., West Tampa, 813/879-4909)

 

Marc and Didi Zudar's Deli Café and Caterers
It's a good thing the rest of the menu here offers mostly the standard soup/salad/sandwich options, because you'll need to save your calories for this gluttonous caramel flan. The thick custard drips with rich, gooey caramel and has heavy whipping cream and half-and-half (instead of milk) as the main ingredients. It's yours for $4, but if you want to impress your friends, order a party-sized flan for $25. (201 W. Platt St., South Tampa, 813/250-6272)

 

—Alexandra Zayas

New York City

Mexican Radio
Traditionalists, take heart. There's one joint in New York City—land of fancy fusion foods—that still knows how to make a good old-fashioned flan. Nope, no mango chutney relish or cactus flower flourish here. Just Mexican cooks who expertly ensure their $6 flan has a firm, slightly bumpy texture and rich, eggy flavor. They bathe the baby custards in a thick, syrupy caramel that coats your tongue without a hint of burnt-sugar aftertaste. In this small cantina, what you see is what you get. (19 Cleveland Place, 212/343-0140)

 

Bogota Latin Bistro
Think you're not a fan of flan? Then try this Brazilian-style Flan de coco for $4, a dense block of pale, off-white custard so thick you'll think you're slicing into a chunk of cheese. It's almost cake-like, with chewy shreds of coconut embedded into every creamy, filling bite. The bistro's Rio-born chef uses coconut, coconut cream and fewer eggs than your traditional flan so that there's no eggy taste or familiar jiggle. Trust us, you'll be begging for the recipe before you ask for the check. (141 Fifth Ave., Brooklyn, 718/230-3805)

 

Rosa Mexicano
This Flan de coco is just about the prettiest thing you've ever seen: a slick, pale-yellow dome decorated with a ring of caramelized pineapple and a sprig of green mint. The tricky part is trying to coax a bit of this slippery flan onto a spoon—it's so drippy and jiggly, it's like scooping up underdone egg whites. The flavor is just as light and delicate; only the faintest taste of coconut lingers on your tongue after each bite. , the $8 price tag at this painfully hip spot is enough to make you squirm, but didn't Mami always say you get what you pay for? (9 E. 18th St., 212/533-3350)

 

—Angelique Serrano

Boston

Estrella Bakery
In the heart of Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood, or what city officials are trying to rebrand as the Latin Quarter (since it's home to many Dominican and Cuban restaurants and shops), this bakery offers dizzying rows of Dominican and Latin favorites such as cinnamon-sprinkled natilla and chunky dulce de leche. But the $1 flan is clearly the true estrella. Shaped like a slice of cheesecake, it's creamy and rich—we swear it explodes on your taste buds! (333 Centre St., 617/983-3030)

 

El Oriental de Cuba
When a fire gutted this restaurant in 2005, owner Nobel García spent a year renovating the decor with bright red, purple and yellow signs featuring maps of Cuba. He finally reopened in October 2006 to lines of hungry Cuban-food lovers waiting to get their fill of ropa vieja, papa rellenas and, claro, their Vanilla flan. About the size of a tennis ball, the $2 dessert is perfectly sweet, wobbling like Jell-O from spoon to mouth. (416 Centre St., 617/524-6464)

 

Miami Café Restaurant
Located in Beantown's proud Puerto Rican community in the city's South End, this eatery's $2 flan sits in a perfect pool of caramel, in a plastic cup. You'll die for the delicious swirls of vanilla mixed just right with milk and eggs. Sweet, but not too sweet. (68 Aguadilla St., 617/859-8360)

 

—Johnny Diaz

Chicago

Adobo Grill
Chef and partner Freddy Sanchez, who handles both the sweets and the savories, created this special Flan de coco for two reasons: Coconut is a fave in his native Guerrero, and he was inspired by a delicious coco flan he sampled on his last trip to the Yucatán. Laced with fresh coconut milk and cream of coconut, the $6 custard is served in a phyllo cup with a drizzle of caramel sauce. If you're loco for coco, this one's for you. (2005 W. Division St., 773/252-9990; 1610 N. Wells St., 312/266-7999)

 

De La Costa
Douglas Rodriguez, the celebrated Nuevo Latino chef whose résumé includes stints at Patria and Chicama in N.Y.C., is behind this sexy restaurant and lounge. The dessert menu expertly melds Latin flavors with nuevo twists. Right now executive pastry chef Ann Giles offers a dreamy cream cheese Flan de queso with roasted pineapple bathed in sherry jelly and caramel-sherry sauce. An $8 dessert that may get us a little tipsy? What's not to love? (465 E. Illinois St., 312/464-1700)

 

Frontera Grill
Even with his hectic schedule, star chef Rick Bayless makes time to collaborate with executive pastry chef Melissa Novak (both of them are honorary Latinos, as far as we're concerned!) to create the monthly dessert lineup here. We loved their recent Flan de especies for $7; infused with cinnamon, cloves and orange zest and drizzled with orange-brandy sauce, it was so delicious we had to remember that licking the plate isn't sexy. (445 N. Clark St., 312/661-1434)

 

—Terri Mooney

Houston

Hugo's
Opened five years ago by local restaurateur Tracy Vaught and her husband, chef Hugo Ortega, Hugo's offers an elegant reimagining of the tastes Hugo grew up with in Mexico City. His brother, pastry chef Ruben Ortega, brings the same mix of Mexican culture to his desserts. Their Chocolate flan ($7) earned them massive acclaim when they first opened. Beginning with cocoa beans roasted and ground on-site (how's that for authentic?), it features the bittersweet punch of candied kumquats and cajeta cream, a thick syrup that offsets the fruit's zest with sweet confection. (1600 Westheimer Rd., 713/524-7744)

 

Julia's Bistro
Food snobs might scoff at owner and chef Carmen Vasquez's Pumpkin flan, suggesting it's less a formal custard than a middle ground between a mousse and Thanksgiving pie filling. But sometimes tradition is meant to be broken, and this flan is proof. Topped with a cavity-inducing meringue and drizzled with caramel sauce, this little $5 slice is flan-tástico! (3722 Main St., 713/807-0090)

 

Arandas Bakery
The slightly cranky-looking statue of a baker that greets you at the door here stands for simplicity and quality, the way a red-and-white pole does outside a barber shop. It's the standard Jose Camarena brought to Houston 25 years ago when he started a taco truck business that's expanded to 35 taquerias and two seafood restaurants throughout Texas and four bakeries in the Houston area. Not to be missed is the Chocoflan. The $15 delicacy is a mix of chocolate cake and silky flan made in the tradition of the bakery's namesake: a small town in Jalisco, Mexico. (5307 Airline Dr., 713/694-1813)

 

—Michael Clark

Los Angeles

La Serenata de Garibaldi
A hole-in-the-wall steps away from a street corner where mariachi musicians gather every day looking for work, this Los Angeles institution's pan-Mexican menu is excellent. But its most cherished creations are the flans, which vary in flavor according to season and can range from coconut to vanilla to one lathered with cajeta. Best by far is the Caramel flan, a brown, pocketed mass of smokiness, sweetness and sheer bliss. And for only five bucks! (1842 E. First St., 323/265-2887)

 

Xiomara Melrose
Xiomara Ardolina is an official member of Los Angeles's culinary court thanks to the Cuban native's three Nuevo Latino restaurants, two of which bear her name. Angelenos love everything about the lady—her unique creations, her gorgeous name and especially her delightful takes on flan. At her latest namesake spot, on trendy Melrose Avenue, the Tres flancitos allows diners to enjoy the dessert in three flavors—guayaba, guanábana and mamey—served in bite-sized portions. And the sampling platter is only $8 to boot! Savor each slowly: The flan's fruity, luscious essence is as close to the Caribbean as you can find in El Lay. (6101 W. Melrose Ave., 323/461-0601)

 

Taléo Mexican Grill
One of the greatest flans in all of Southern California isn't in Los Angeles but rather in Irvine, the core of wealthy, conservative, Latino-hatin' Orange County. Those factors all disappear once you enter Taléo, a sleek restaurant owned and operated by Texas native Nic Villarreal. His $8 flan achieves a sort of sugar nirvana—a dense, creamy, chilled slab of smooth custard topped with a delicate layer of caramel that shatters like that of a crème brûlée. Chase it with a snifter of Corralejo-brand tequila and allow the sugar and alcohol to lull you into the best food coma of your life. (3309 Michelson Dr., Irvine, 949/553-9002)

 

—Gustavo Arellano

San Francisco

El Metate
If you're craving a slice of flan that tastes just like Abuelita's Flan casero, El Metate's no-frills $2 version will have you jonesing for more. The teeny spot is known for its hefty burritos, but its best secret is the homestyle flan—because of its spongy consistency, the caramel juices release slowly in your mouth. Co-owner Francisco Hernandez says he fell in love with the recipe at co-owner David Carreño's house four years ago, when Carreño's wife served him a slice of her Flan napolitano. Hernandez says his other secret is that El Metate's flan is steamed on the stovetop like tamales, not made in the oven. (2406 Bryant St., 415/641-7209)

 

—Daffodil Altan

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